President Clinton, unable to bring the two sides together himself, said Tuesday night he will ask Congress for emergency legislation for binding arbitration to end the 6-monthold baseball strike.
“We’re going to send it up tomorrow, and I’d like to have it considered expeditiously,” Clinton said at a hastily called news conference after hours of closeddoor negotiations at the White House.
Clinton said he had been optimistic earlier in the evening that he might be able to announce a settlement, or at least steps toward one, that would assure “that baseball was coming back in 1995.”
“Unfortunately, the parties have not reached agreement; the American people are the real losers,” he said. “Clearly, they are not capable of settling this strike without an umpire. The only way to do this appears to be for Congress to step up to the plate and pass the legislation.”
The striking Major League Players Association and baseball team owners both rejected Clinton’s wishes and turned down terms of a settlement proposed by mediator Bill Usery Jr. The sides, which have not had a direct negotiating session since Saturday, also made no progress toward reaching a negotiated settlement by Clinton’s afternoon deadline.
That prompted an “exasperated” Clinton to summon both sides for a White House meeting. Clinton met in the Rose Garden Room with groups led by executive director Don Fehr, who brought along players Cecil Fielder, Tom Glavine, Jay Bell, David Cone and Scott Sanderson, and acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who owns the Milwaukee Brewers.
Tuesday’s crisis-style meetings in the West Wing also included Vice President Al Gore and Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
The game that’s on most White House aides’ minds, though, isn’t baseball or even labor negotiations. It’s the presidential contest of 1996.
If Clinton can use his persuasive powers to give the nation’s fans their beloved game back, aides hope he will win some grudging credit from the biggest constituency that rejected him in last year’s congressional election: white males.
Perhaps for that very reason, Republican leaders publicly walked away from Clinton’s mediation effort on Tuesday, warning that Congress was in no mood to back up the president with legislation to force a settlement.
“The president has apparently thrown the ball into Congress’ court. We maintain our view that Congress is ill-suited to resolving private labor disputes,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in a joint statement.
Both Republicans said they wanted to hear personally from Usery why the talks broke down.
Earlier Tuesday, Dole, who is planning to run for the Republican presidential nomination next year, said neither player nor owner “should be looking to Congress for any magic solutions. The magic solution can only be found at the bargaining table.”
That drew a quick rebuke from White House spokesman Mike McCurry.
“Why would anyone who loves baseball want to take a tool off the table that might be useful in helping to convince the players and owners to try harder to settle their strike?” McCurry said at the White House. “I’m not sure it helps the process at this delicate moment.”
Both Clinton and Dole have described their interest in ending the strike as a high-minded effort to restore the nation’s pastime to its place in American life.
But aides have grudgingly acknowledged the obvious: there’s not much baseball being played here, but there’s plenty of politics.
“You have to look at these issues through partisan glasses,” a Democratic congressional aide explained.
“Do the Republicans want to give the president what could be perceived as a victory for his decisiveness?”
And there, Clinton has a serious problem - for to force a settlement, he needs either congressional action or a serious threat of congressional action.
“Remember, the president right now has no legal authority to force any parties to the bargaining table to actually abide by any decision,” Reich noted.
In railroad and airline strikes, a president has authority to declare a national emergency and impose at least a temporary settlement. Unaccountably, perhaps, Congress has conferred no such power on the president in the case of a baseball strike.
So Clinton must ask Congress for help.
“I know that people in Congress say they have other pressing business, and they certainly do,” Clinton said.
“I regret very much having to send this legislation there, but spring training is just nine days away and I think many Americans consider this pressing.”
Usery met separately with owners and players during the day in one last attempt at a settlement. But that backfired and players said they felt “betrayed” by Usery’s recommendation for a luxury tax plan, two sources close to the union told The Associated Press.
Clinton aides have said for days that the president might use a legislative hammer if the players and owners didn’t cede to his mediator.
Now that the parties have called his bluff, though, the president’s prestige is on the line.